What Is An Internship?
Some have conservatively estimated that in the US alone there are over 500,000 unpaid internships each year, but what exactly is an internship?
Merriam-Websters dictionary doesn’t have a definition for “internship”, but defines “intern” as “an advanced student or graduate usually in a professional field (as medicine or teaching) gaining supervised practical experience (as in a hospital or classroom).”
Wikipedia defines “internship” as, “a system of on-the-job training for white-collar jobs, similar to an apprenticeship. Interns are usually college or university students, but they can also be high school students or post graduate adults seeking skills for a new career. They may also be as young as middle school or in some cases elementary students.”
As Ross Perlin puts it in his book Intern Nation, “the very significance of the word intern lies in its ambiguity.”
My Attempt At Clarity
While trying to answer this question, I developed the following visual diagram to help pinpoint where on the career/work spectrum internships fall.
Since there is no clear definition of just what an internship is, clarity through comparison may be a good way to help clear up the ambiguity.
What are some of the essential differences between “School” and an “Internship”?
- Environment (classroom vs. field/office)
- Method of instruction (Stand in front of class vs. demonstration)
- Method of supervision (tests vs. directly watch performance)
- Types of subjects taught (theoretical vs. practical)
What are some of essential differences between a “Job” and an “Internship”?
- Instruction/Supervision (limited/none vs. active)
- Level of Difficulty (challenging vs. easy)
- Responsibilities (many vs. few)
- Expectation of Productivity (yes vs. no)
- Duration (indefinite vs. limited)
- Duty of Loyalty (expected vs. none)
- Scope of Control During Work Hours (total vs. limited/none)
So what’s the difference between a paid internship and an unpaid internship?
There appears to be no clear and consistent answer to this question.
Looking at actual paid and unpaid internships, the National Association of Colleges and Employers concluded in their 2011 Student Survey that “paid internships are generally characterized by students having more professional level experience than unpaid internships. In reverse, students in unpaid internships appear to spend a disproportionate amount of time engaged in clerical/non-essential functions,” which is why unpaid interns consistently received less job offers and lower starting salary offers. While there are some variations in level of flexibility, workload, and office status, there seems to be no clear line that divides the two. The existence of paid internships clouds the issues when discussing just what exactly is an internship.
If an employer is paying an “intern” because of valuable work that was actually performed, then what’s the difference between a paid internship and a summer job? I’m not really sure why paid internships exist. Just call them jobs (it would certainly look better on the intern’s resume). Businesses don’t just pay people because they are feeling generous towards those they are educating and training. If the argument for unpaid internships is that the training is payment for any work, if any, that might benefit the for-profit business, then why are paid interns being paid? Remember, universities don’t pay the student they teach.
This confusion and ambiguity that surrounds internships today is an essential contributor to the “internship problem”.
If you have any suggestion on how to better define internships, please share them in the comments below.